Outsourcing Death


Years ago, I wrote about lead poisoning for The Atlantic--reporting that blood lead levels in the United States had declined dramatically since the ban of lead in gasoline, and that when it cames to lead, most middle class American families had little to fear.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of families in La Oroya, Peru--thanks to Doe Run Peru, a lead smelting operation owned by American billionaire industrialist Ira Rennert.  According to the Times, in addition to his metals empire Rennert is proud owner of, among many other things, a 66,000 square foot Italianate mansion in the Hamptons.  Let's hope for his sake he spends a bit more time tucked away in that villa than in La Oroya, which is listed as one of the 10 most polluted places on earth.   Rennert claims he would clean up his smelter, were it not for the low price of metal these days.  And who are we to disagree?  You don't become a billionaire by sweating the small stuff--like permanent brain damage in someone else's children.  But the locals find this puzzling. "It's like we're pawns in a game," one La Oroyan told the Times.  "What I still fail to understand is why we are exposed to the risks of an American investment but not to the environmental protections enjoyed by the citizens of the United States."


Outsourcing pollution--and the illness and death linked to it--has long been the norm for many multi-national corporations, as anyone who has spent much time in China knows. A  Carnegie Mellon study concluded that the United States may be reducing its own carbon emissions by importing goods from countries that are creating even more emissions.  The impact of this is most deeply felt by the poor, few of whom have anything to say about it.   But we do.   We can think twice before purchasing products that endanger the communities they are made in, even if it means paying a few pennies more. And we can demand that multi-national companies that represent American interests insist on pollution controls and worker protections.  In an increasingly "flat" world, can we really afford to do any less?

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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